Published on June 14, 2016.
AS A loyal son of Mindanao, I would like the first president from the “great island” to succeed. But how will success be defined? By measuring the number of corpses of suspected criminals floating in Manila Bay? By forcing through the burial at the heroes’ cemetery of the same dictator against whom his own mother led the protest struggle in Davao? By counting the number of institutions—the Catholic Church, the media, the United Nations, the embassies of our allies—he has criticized?
This is not a made-up list, but a quick look at some of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign promises and postelection pronouncements. News organizations did not invent these statements; they merely reported them as newsworthy, because Duterte himself chose to emphasize them. In his speech at the mammoth victory rally in Davao City, for instance, he spent a lot of time criticizing both the Catholic Church and the media; at one point, he started talking about the Bureau of Internal Revenue—and then promptly dropped the topic when something reminded him yet again of his complaints about the media. And off he went again.
And yet reasonable people, distinguished experts in their own right, have welcomed the advent of the Duterte presidency. In Davao, the president of the Jesuit university, Fr. Joel Tabora, and its leading feminist and citizen advocate, Irene Santiago, have offered cogent reasons for optimism without wishing away Duterte’s language or reputation; in the Cabinet, he has named eminences who were not part of his usual circles, such as Ernie Pernia and Liling Briones, to cite just two outstanding appointees. That a close associate like Mayor Leoncio Evasco remains part of his inner circle, or an advocate-academic like Judy Taguiwalo would accept an appointment, is auspicious, for those looking for signs.
And yet, for all that, and as I wrote earlier, I am still filled with foreboding. I realize that many of those who know Duterte well swear that he is a political strategist par excellence. That may be true; I am prepared to believe it. But I do wonder about the logic behind Duterte’s attacks on institutions like Church and media, and his overdependence on his Davao circle. There must be a logic to it, not mere pique; like all others elected under the 1987 Constitution, he remains a plurality president. If he acts decisively and at the same time reaches out to those who did not vote for him (as his favorite president Fidel V. Ramos did in 1992), he can easily double his base of support (as, again, Ramos did, remarkably, in only his first 100 days).
And yet Duterte persists. Right now the logic that suggests itself is that he seeks to undermine potential sources of criticism: the Church, the media, the United Nations, the embassies. If he turns on nongovernment organizations and universities next, then all this may be deliberate.
Some of those close to him have also continued to promote a Davao-versus-the-rest-of-the-country divide, defending his decision not to go to the capital for his proclamation, positing that “outside media” did not have a clue about who the real Duterte is, proposing that he address forums in Bisaya simply for the sake of confounding other Filipinos, arguing that “inato” (homegrown) was better, more authentic, than the national or international standards to which we’ve grown accustomed.
All this goes against the larger hopes of his other supporters, who speak, to borrow Santiago’s phrase, of a “seismic opportunity” to do something good for the Philippines. And it reminds me of something Nick Joaquin wrote, about our country’s unfortunate heritage of smallness.
“The apogee [of the Philippine Revolution] was the rainy season of 1898, when [General Emilio] Aguinaldo stood before the gates of Manila. But character is destiny; and Aguinaldo being a small man was incapable of the large act. When he retreated to Malolos, what always happens in our history was happening again: form was disintegrating; greatness was reverting to a smaller condition.
“What was almost a national movement now shrank into a mere clan feat, the exclusive property of Kawit. For the crisis of the Republic stemmed from what the non-Caviteños fumed against as Aguinaldo’s Cavitismo. The idea of the Revolution, of the Republic, had dwindled into something as small as the Kawit clan—or, worse, [Apolinario] Mabini’s private jealousies. Confronted by the figure of [Gen. Antonio] Luna, Mabini darkly warned (oh, he would change his mind later, as usual) and Aguinaldo, ‘con su puño y letra (in his own handwriting),’ would write all the generals who had been with him in Cavite not to forget the days of ’96 and not to fail him in this moment of ‘imminent peril.’ This was not the President of the Philippines invoking the nation but only a clan leader summoning the clansmen. Not Luna alone beheld his fate when, on arriving in Cabanatuan on the day of his killing, he was met by a Kawit man.”
His supporters believe Duterte is capable of the large act. That means imagining a nation made up of more than his 16 million voters.